Student Research Showcase: Christian Lewis

1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?

Growing up in Germany, I loved playing with Legos and building things out of wood. When I moved back to the U.S. for middle school, I took my first engineering class and fell in love with the problem solving and the design aspects of the field. From then on, I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Throughout high school, I built my schedule around this goal and ended up graduating with over a year’s worth of college credit for my desired major. I began taking classes at UCCS to finish off the rest of the needed hours and ended up adding an aerospace minor to my degree plan in the spring of 2021. This led me to taking Dr. George’s Intro to Astrodynamics class, where she introduced my current research topic during the second week of classes. Excited to learn more about space, I approached her after class and explained to her that I had zero experience in the field, but I was eager to learn and willing to do any reading needed, to allow me to help with the research. She suggested I come to one of the weekly meetings she had with graduate students working on the project and everything took off from there.

2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

I would say that I am currently planning a space mission to send humans to both Mars and the asteroid Ceres in the same shuttle. With two teams of astronauts leaving Earth at the same time, one team would stay on Mars and start a settlement, while the second team would go to the asteroid to do research on the precious minerals and materials found on Ceres. After wrapping up their research, the Ceres team would then go back to Mars to pick up the first team before returning to Earth. With each planet’s unique orbit causing the alignment to change daily, I have been looking at the best times to leave Earth to make sure the energy or fuel needed to complete the trip is as low as possible, while also making sure the astronauts on this mission do not have to be stuck in the shuttle for years at a time.

3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you? 

The most exciting part about this research is that I have proven this idea is possible. Initially, this was started as a theory, and it took me months to run enough orbit simulations between these three planets to see if it was possible. Currently, companies are actively looking to send people to Mars or Ceres, starting at Earth. So the idea to send humans to Mars and then immediately attempt to land humans on an even further planet was pretty far fetched. Even when I reached out to NASA to see if they had any background material for missions starting at Mars, they had nothing. So, after blindly stumbling around in the dark, I was able to prove not only is this idea possible, but it can be done by the year 2035. I am excited to continue turning this idea into a reality.

4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.  

Initially this research began as a NASA competition to research sending people from Earth to Ceres. After the UCCS team working on the project presented their ideas to NASA, Dr. George continued to look into the idea and ended up taking it to the American Institute of Aerodynamics and Astronautics (AIAA)’s Ascend conference in Las Vegas in November of 2021. After presenting her findings at the International Conference, she was approached by an Indian company, Grahaa Space, with the idea to add a stop at Mars on the way to Ceres. At the time, the company made a lot of initial assumptions about the planets’ orbits to simplify the math, but it still looked promising. Dr. George agreed to work with them on the idea, but they soon dropped out and let UCCS take over and continue on with the idea.

5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?       

It has been a truly amazing experience working with all of these great people! Being able to work on these advanced topics in the real world and getting to know all of these amazing people in the engineering field from around the world is still surreal to me. Through this research I have not only gotten the chance to work with a PhD student at UCCS, but I have also been able to reach out to PhD students from Boulder, Iowa and even Australia. Besides that, I have gotten the chance to bounce my ideas off of NASA flight specialists and a Lt. Colonel at the Air Force Academy, and even got to present them to John Reed, United Launch Alliance’s chief rocket scientist. All of these people helped me in various ways and have made this entire experience as fun and rewarding as it has been. All that is besides the fact that my faculty mentor, Dr. George, has been a huge help at pointing me in the right direction when I am lost or suggesting I reach out to new connections who could help me better understand a topic I am struggling with. She has also been the driving force behind me stepping out of my comfort zone to present at the big conferences that I’ve been to.

6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?

This research has greatly widened my view of what I can do with this degree and has helped me settle on an idea of what industry I want to go into after graduation. Without this research I don’t think I would have realized how much I enjoy the math and science that goes into space travel and orbits this much. This research has also helped me get my name out in the engineering field and helped me learn how to build professional relationships with people I have never met before. Overall, it was hard accepting that there may not be a right answer at the end of this research, but I eventually learned to take the risk, trust the process, and see it through anyway. I don’t think any of that would have been possible if I stayed in a purely classroom environment.

7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?

The most memorable experience of this project was presenting at the 25th annual International Mars Society Convention in Tempe, Arizona in October of 2022. I was urged to apply by Dr. George, and I was surprised I was accepted to be a presenter to an international audience as an undergrad. Everything from planning the trip, to attending the conference, and then getting the chance to present next to some of the top engineers in the field was awe-inspiring and an experience I am never going to forget!

8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?

Do it! It is a lot simpler than you think. It does not matter if you have an idea you want to study, if you hear about ongoing research you are interested in, or if you have no clue what to study but are interested in research in general. Take the chance and talk to a professor. Even if the first person you approach doesn’t share your interest, keep trying! I am sure if they don’t want to join you, they know another faculty member who is interested or has a connection to someone that can help you find the right path. I wish I got into my research project sooner and I hope more people get to experience the feeling of pride that being a part of a project like this instills. Projects like this will not just help you grow as a person, but will also help you grow within your field as well.

The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.

UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.